When I first started teaching gifted education in my classroom, I was wondering how I could differentiate for my students while still getting the rest of my class covered. I was introduced to word ladders for a great way to incorporate phonics and word play into my ELA centers. A word ladder takes a word, and each step changes the letter in some way. You can change the rule for each step or have it stay the same.

Typically students start from the bottom and work their way up the ladder. I like to have my ladders start at the top and go down, since I want to reinforce with my young students that you read and write from left to right, top to bottom.


How Do Word Ladders Help Students?

They help students manipulate words by using previously learned phonics skills they were taught and applying them to make new words. Some of these words they may not even know! I do have a rule with my students that it has to be a real word to be on the ladder. If it is not, they have to rethink it, and possibly go back to the previous step and change it. I have had students learn new vocabulary by hurrying and Googling the word they’d just created on their Chromebook to see if it’s real. Then reading the definition due to curiosity. That right there is student-driven learning!


How Can They Be Used To Differentiate?

Word ladders are fantastic for differentiating for all levels in your class, including gifted/talented students. You can have students start at basic CVC words with only one rule on the ladder. Then move them up to CVC words that have the rule change every step. If you need to pick up the difficulty more, have students start with words that have blends, CVCE, r-controlled vowels, digraphs, or diphthongs. Add new rules per step, like changing the vowel, a consonant, or different letters. It can become quite challenging fast and gifted students LOVE it.

How Can I Use Them During Centers?

Since word ladders are differentiated, you can have students choose their difficulty. You can accomplish this by having folders for easy and harder ones. I have mine labeled on the bottom of the sheet with a pencil. It has a number on it. They go from 1-4. 1 being the easiest.

Once students have their laminated or sheet-protected copy, they then pick up a multi-ladder worksheet. I use one I created that has four ladders, but no rules on it. This is perfect so students don’t have to try and find a worksheet that goes with their dry-erase template.

When students fill out their dry-erase sheet, they transfer the words over on their worksheet to turn in. This is great for accountability and for students to show what they did. I look over mine to see what skills students decided to work on and if it is too hard or easy. I then make adjustments to their small group instruction based on it.



Word ladders have brought such engagement and curiosity into my ELA centers. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had students come up to me and tell me they discovered a new word they hadn’t known previously using this. They are simple to grasp for students and provide practice in many different skills.

If you would are interested in trying word ladders in your classroom, you can find mine on Teachers Pay Teachers here.

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